Initially released in the same year (1994) as Wong's masterpiece Chungking Express, Ashes Of Time (or, in its slightly shorter, 2008 re-edited and re-scored version, Ashes Of Time Redux), on the surface at least, could hardly be a more different cinematic proposition. Gone are the claustrophobic urban interiors and pop music soundtrack, to be replaced by a 'Samurai' tale set in the ancient Chinese desert, all to a Morricone-esque soundtrack. Closer inspection does, however, reveal in Ashes Of Time many of Wong's recurring thematic obsessions of memory, identity, dreams and lost love, with (perhaps in keeping with a Leone/Kurosawa tradition) a good measure of betrayal and vengeance thrown in.
Ashes Of Time also presents Wong at his most elliptical, narrative-wise. At (or close to) the centre of the film is Leslie Cheung's 'middleman' Ouyang Feng, an apparently unscrupulous hirer of passing master swordsmen to anyone seeking vengeance, whether it be against gangs of marauding bandits or simply a traitorous lover or spouse. Wong's parable-like narrative is rendered all the more enigmatic by his trademark sharp cutting and editing style, his (at times) only partially explained character motivations and (to cap it all) by his use of the androgynous-looking Bridget Lin playing the brother/sister pairing, Murong Yang/Murong Yin, the sister having been previously spurned by visiting swordsman Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai).
Stylistically, Wong's film is (as is his wont) stunning to look at. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle's use of saturated colours is even more exaggerated here than in pretty much anything Doyle has done for Wong up to the director's 2046, with memorable desert shots (including an amazing sequence of a gang of bandits on horseback emerging towards the camera over a yellow desert horizon) and exquisite peach blossoms. Similarly, Doyle has captured some spectacularly shot and edited sword fight scenes (including some special and slow-motion effects), which could (I guess) have been part-inspiration for the spate of such martial arts films in the late 1990s/2000s.
However, for me, as with all Wong films, it is not (principally) the visual impact of Ashes Of Time that leaves the most lasting impression, but the way Wong portrays his characters emoting. Whilst this is less pronounced here than in his masterpieces Chungking Express and In The Mood For Love, both Leung and Lin are very good in some of the early sequences, whilst Maggie Cheung is (again) exquisite as Feng's long lost love (and now sister-in-law).
Not absolutely top-notch Wong, therefore, but well worth seeing and a film whose impact grows with each repeat viewing.